Knives are out in a dark room on a stormy Sri Lankan night, writes Alex Robertson.

This story starts with lightning, a thunderstorm and a power-cut. There are knives and a gruesome-looking contraption for scouring flesh, as well as aprons and a boiling pot.

A blood-soaked, butt-clenching schlockfest? No: welcome to a cookery lesson in Belihul Oya, central Sri Lanka.

We're in the Water Garden Guest House on the southern edge of tea country just at the point where the heat and moisture from the Indian Ocean collects, stuck against the mountains and falls as oceans of rain. The rain feeds the tea plantations in the mountains above and the rivers that spill through these foothills irrigate the paddy fields and forests that abound in this area. Everywhere is green and fertile. Food is abundant.

The oppressive heat and humidity had been building all day: a thick, sticky, heavy kind of heat that induces a rivulet of sweat just by rolling your eyes skywards looking for the rain.


The effort was wasted. We all knew what was coming. It started with a bombardment of huge, slow-moving drops that burst on impact with the earth, followed by a noisy cascade that drowned-out speech. Then a flash and an ear-splitting clap signalled the full force of the storm.

That's when the lights went out.

A shadowy figure, outlined by a flash of lightning, flitted through the gloom and suddenly produced a candle. It was a light of sorts, but nowhere near enough to be wielding a knife.

We followed the light down the passage, the noise from the storm drowning out footsteps and muffling shrieks as another clap burst overhead. We filed into a room with a rectangular steel bench in the centre: candles lit the bench and about a metre around, the rest of the room disappearing into the shadowy distance.

Along one wall three rings of flame flickered and the outline of a gas hob gradually appeared as our eyes adjusted to the dimness. A collection of vegetables and spices filled the centre of the bench. A candle flicked on in a corner illuminating a bespectacled face.

Cheffy, our cook and teacher, walked toward us handing out peacock-blue aprons, lighting more candles as she walked around the kitchen.

Her hair pulled tight against her scalp and wearing a jade green top, Cheffy had a broad tooth-filled smile, but little in the way of English. She proceeded to get to work, indicating that we should follow her example.

We peeled pre-boiled baby potatoes, chopped shallots, diced tomatoes, minced garlic, sliced chillies and top and tailed green beans, placing our efforts into several bowls on the bench.

Then Cheffy pulled out an enormous machete from under the bench, the long, razor-sharp blade glinting in the candlelight. She grabbed a small head from under the bench and swung the blade sharply down. The head split into two neat halves, revealing the white flesh of a mature coconut. She shoved one half on to what looked like a meat grinder with four jagged blades and wound the handle. Shredded white flesh spilled into a bowl as she cranked away.

Then it was our turn.

Our teacher grabbed the results and proceeded to tip water on to the flesh, kneading with her strong, nimble fingers. She squeezed the mush and crushed it into a sieve, repeating the process three times to produce coconut cream.

Cheffy sped around the kitchen and soon there were pots boiling, pans sizzling and wooden spoons stirring away.

The smells of spices and frying garlic flooded the air and pricked the saliva glands.

It didn't take too much encouragement to leave the kitchen and head to the dining room.

Plates of food filled the table with barely enough room for our bottles of Lion lager, the aromas wafting up on clouds of steam rekindling the heat from before the storm.

But this time, the rivulets of sweat came from the fiery chilli, quenched only by gulps of ice-cold beer.


1 thinly sliced onion
1 bulb garlic, minced
1 fresh chilli, chopped
1 tsp salt; mustard seed
tsp chilli powder; garam masala; fenugreek seed, pepper, turmeric
cup coconut cream

Heat 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil. When hot add mustard seed. When seeds pop add all ingredients, stir and cooked covered for 5 minutes.

Add a quarter cup of coconut cream and serve.


400g lentils, soaked overnight (or 1 can cooked lentils)
2 shallots
2 bulbs garlic
2 fresh chillies
1 tsp each of salt; turmeric; pepper; fenugreek seed
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tsp garam masala
1 cup coconut milk (more if necessary)

Sautee minced garlic and thinly sliced shallots with chopped fresh chilli in hot vegetable oil.

Add soaked lentils, salt, cinnamon stick, turmeric, pepper, fenugreek, garam masala, coconut milk and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, adding more liquid if necessary.

Taste to check seasoning and lentils.

Serve with rice and/or paratha.

Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights from Auckland to Colombo.

Further information: See

Alex Robertson travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.